I have a strange scene playing in my head, drawn from a world I don’t know at all: Yankee football. The play begins, the ball is snapped, bodies in contact, something happens and, suddenly, a heavy lumbering defensive lineman has the ball in his hands. No one scripts a fumble, and while our lineman might have been attuned to the possibility that the ball would appear in his hands, its appearance there will always have been something of a surprise—the strike of the Heideggarian es gibt that inaugurates each world each time. Surprise: the ball seizes the lineman as much as the lineman seizes the ball, and his task is both to carry and be carried away by the event of this seizure.
This little scene has been playing in my head as I try to think the relation between theory and archive, between the philosophy I can’t not read and the history of slavery and freedom that I can’t not think. I want to think of history as the scene where the scripted play of the theoretical comes to crisis in a fumble and—for a brief instant—somebody unexpected might be holding the ball. Today there is a tendency to make theory know (its) history, to expand the philosophical script to incorporate a seedy context: Courtesy of Cavendish, Hobbes was invested in Somers Islands Company, ergo… Locke had stock in the RAC and wrote the Constitution of the Carolinas, therefore… Hegel read newspapers and knew about that whole Haiti thing, so… We reconstruct context to read for the symptom, but nothing surprising happens. At the end of the day, Buck-Morss’ Hegel is still calling the play, holding the ball. It’s just that, for an instant, we’re all on the same team (called “Universal History”) and QB Georg is going to lead us to the endzone, “FREEDOM” painted across its span. (It’s painted in the colors of the French flag, all three, the white restored to redress the particularism of the “black identity [that] functioned as a national myth,” a mythic identity in “tension with the ideas of universal emancipation to which the revolution had given birth.” Okay. Closing the polemic that’s threatening to open. For a more generous read, check out David Kazanjian’s awesome response in Diacritics, I think.)
But then, sometimes, something irreducibly singular happens, appears in the archive, a kind of history that theory would never (want to) know. I’m thinking of a scene in the narrative of Sitiki (alias Jacques Smith, Jack Smith, Uncle Jack, Father Jack—the proliferations of names is crucial), an enslaved person who lived in Florida through the Spanish period, through U.S. annexation, through the Civil War and beyond. I did not know of Sitiki’s narrative until I found it on a shelf in a bookstore, one down the street from my apartment. Like my imagined defensive lineman, I try to stay alert for such chance encounters; like the lineman, I know that nothing will have prepared me for the surprise of the event. I found it over the summer, I’ve now taught it twice, and I must have read it in its entirety fifteen times by now. I can’t count how many times I’ve read the passage I now cite, a passage wherein freedom seizes and is seized by Sitiki. Freedom takes and is taken by Sitiki in a peculiar direction, into a world we would think to call slavery:
During the embargo of Jefferson misfortunes attended us. My master went with the family from St. Marys to Fernandina opposite, on Amelia Island belonging to Spain, leaving me in charge of his house in St. Marys a little way out of town. The British, then at war with us, having come there, the officers carried away the furniture and took me to their quarters. My master applied for me of the admiral, who gave consent that I should go if I chose, and Cockburn gave me a written license to pass where I might like. Several hundred black people were induced at this time to take shipping in the English vessels with the assurance of freedom and embarked for Halifax.
On the day we received news of peace a young mistress was born, in a house near the residence of ‘Old Fernandez,’ still standing on the bay, before what were his corn and cotton fields, behind the wharf at Fernandina new town. In time she became the wife of a surgeon of the Army.
Trivial circumstances seemingly unimportant come to be the tallies that passing over memory often connect for me in their order more to important incidents in life. (19) [The tortured syntax of this last sentence, its beauty and its sadness: I don't know how to read it, I've just included it because it needs to be read.]
Sitiki knows something, something urgent and necessary about freedom, a knowledge that comes to light in his enigmatic decision to remain enslaved. He knows something about freedom that the silly British admiral can’t know when he offers an “assurance of freedom” (a phrasing, like “black people were induced,” that reeks of the style of his amanuensis and former master, Buckingham Smith, but a phrasing that—should we accord Sitiki’s enigmatic decision to stay with Smith the status of a decision, and we should—we must take seriously, that we must take as the co-production of the ensemble Sitiki/Buckingham, the intimate sociality to which Sitiki returned, perhaps happy to witness the birth of a young mistress). He knows something, and so decides as he does, and it is around this decision that Enlightenment philosophy fumbles.
I can think of few texts of Europe’s Aufklärung that do not abstractly and hypothetically stage such a scene of auto-enslavement. Hobbes, Locke, and Hegel certainly do. Yet, such scenes of auto-enslavement (always set in a state of war, as their common source, Grotius, set the scene) only ever function as a fictive vanishing point necessary for and constitutive of the freedoms of the polity. The state of slavery is a vanishing, fictive point due to the dynamics of the speech-act by which the vanquished belligerent would enslave himself to preserve his life. The sovereignty with which the vanquished captive declares “I am your slave” will always already have ironized the state it intends to produce; the victor’s counter-signing, “I am your master; I promise not to kill you”—as Hobbes’, Locke’s, and Hegel’s masters proclaim—immediately introduces contract into the relation of domination. Again, slavery is a vanishing point in all of these texts: subjects are either moving toward it or away from it but can never inhabit the a/social relation it names. Sitiki moves into a philosophical space that is supposed to close as soon as it is opened, one recollected in the philosophical script of modernity only in order to assert its impossibility. O my slaves, there is no slave.
What future for freedom does Sitiki clear (let’s call it an act of Lichtung) in his refusal of the “assurance of freedom” held out by that thing we might call Aufklärung? What does Sitiki know that we do not—that Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, and so on do not know?
We read this in class, two classes, grads and undergrads, seizing and seized by the implications of the moment like the heavy lumbering lineman who finds himself holding the ball. Some wanted to find the trace of the Master at each moment of narration; according to this reading, the Master is never more present than in the moment where Sitiki refuses the Anglo “assurance of freedom.” I’m fairly certain that these students think that I’m a conservative monster for insisting that we try to think the future of freedom from the perspective of the slave who auto-enslaves, that we take Sitiki’s narration of his decision seriously and sincerely, that we take it as his decision to relinquish the possessive and self-possessed subjectivity that would allow him to adopt the possessive form subtending the locution “his decision.” It’s worth noting that Sitiki narrated his life as a free man, after the Civil War, having lived decades upon decades in St. Augustine. He was born free and died free: slavery does not constitute the totality of his life. But he did not know that this would have been true when he risked slavery for a different kind of freedom...
Many of us (I include myself) tried contextualizing, sociologizing, and rationalizing this decision. We read a chapter from Jane Landers’ Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, a book that I love and read and reread constantly, in order to grasp the complicated ways that interimperial struggle in the Floridas textured the political subjectivity of free and enslaved blacks. Landers is after those non-revolutionary blacks—the imperial loyalists, the monarchists, all those subjects who don’t do what we good democrats want them to do—who sought freedom in those polities that we would write off as unfree, as undemocratic. Concluding the chapter that my classes read, she writes:
They [i.e., Atlantic Creoles] were fully aware of the inexorable expansionism of the United States, and of the commitment of its southern citizenry to doctrines of racial superiority and to chattel slavery, and thus it is no wonder that Atlantic Creoles chose any political option other than that of the American democracy. (137)
We tried reading Sitiki’s decision in light of this tactical savvy. Spanish Floridian society, some tell us, had legal affordances for enslaved blacks unavailable to even free blacks in Anglo polities like the U.S. or Halifax. The concreteness of Spanish liberties trumped the abstractness of the Anglo “assurance of freedom.” And, yet, I can’t help but be dissatisfied with this rationalization—not least because it is a rationalization. It explains; it doesn’t open; it thinks it knows what freedom is. Indeed, note how the burden of Landers’ prose is to annul surprise, to get us to think that we think freedom in the same fashion as the creoles she studies. Her “fully aware” creoles are, essentially, utility maximizers, sizing up one polity against another and siding with the one promising marginal gains. It is on this basis that we can comprehend the apparently odd decisions of these creoles; the wonder of history is evacuated (“thus it is no wonder”) when we realize that they are just as rational as us, that they think the same thought of freedom
Dispensing with this approach, we also tried coming to terms with Sitiki’s decision via the links between language, space, and affect. Sikiti, as he makes clear, has no real language; he lives between languages, always forgetting the words that he would have known. He tells us, in the first paragraph, that this brokenness of language is why he is writing (or having his words written down):
Persons in San. Augustin who sometimes hear me address my brethren, children of Africans, and see me in the field with the hoe or gathering the fruit of my trees are interested from my advanced age to know somewhat more of me. I have thought myself therefore excusable in giving some written account of my life, inasmuch as my speech is broken and not altogether intelligible to strangers who seem to desire hearing more of me than they learn. (11)
Sitiki’s speech is “broken.” It is, in fact, shattered at the origins: kidnapped as a child, Sitiki does not know the language he once spoke, does not know the name of the land from which he came, until he meets an African in Florida: “One African I talked with seemed to think that I was of a country called Mora. The language I spoke is called Guinea.” One gets the impression that Sitiki hailed each African he knew, repeating the limited set of words of his mother-tongue he recollected—he provides a list—asking, “What is my language?” Sitiki always knows that he does not know language(s): he recalls children in Africa “learning by what they wrote on boards in a language I did not know” (13). He recalls his father, a Muslim who would be killed during his capture, praying; he recalls only the tones, the sonic materiality, and it is master Buckingham who tells him—us—that this language is Arabic. He moves through Spanish and English and took on a French name for a time. Sitiki lives the shattering of language(s), a shattering that is co-extensive with his spatial displacements. It’s from this perspective that we tried to understand Sitiki’s decision. Halifax’s “assurance of freedom,” we reasoned that Sitiki reasoned, meant another exhausting displacement (at least—as we know, black loyalists who went to Halifax began epic journeys to freedom that ended in Liberia, in Australia), another linguistic and cultural code to learn. Sitiki was bound and bounded to the locale he knew, to the intimate world in which his speech might not have seemed broken, where he could preach to the children of Africa and be heard without needing the standardized orthography of writing to save his broken words from being treated as senseless noise.
This reading is perhaps closest to the one that I would pursue, that I will pursue. It begins to get at the being-in-common that philosophy’s freedom can only negatively code as freedom’s vanishing antithesis. This being-in-common isn’t pleasant, it’s not a joyous thing; it’s a broken life, a shattered language, the sociality of a traumatized being trying to get some traction in the world. It is something, though, that we need to know, and that we need to know as a philosophy, as a text that contextualizes nothing. Indeed, Sitiki’s textualization of this obscure, enigmatic freedom will never appear, symptomatically, within the philosophical text of modernity; it will not have been read by a Master Theorist who, in a sovereign and unbroken language, will abstract it into a philosophy of freedom. Rather, Sitiki’s narrative surprises every scripting of what we think freedom is. The task is to carry and be carried by this surprise into a world utterly bereft of conventional “assurance[s] of freedom.”